The Immigrant Experience and the Effects of Intergenerational Trauma


Immigrants intergenerational trauma

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Dr. Lisette Sanchez is a bilingual licensed psychologist and founder of Calathea Wellness, a virtual practice providing individual therapy in California. She has a passion for working with BIPOC folxs and first-generation professionals.

The immigration experience is often a traumatic one. We may think of it primarily as a physical journey filled with danger. However, what we sometimes don’t consider is that trauma is often the impetus for the journey. Some immigrate in search of new opportunities, while others do it to escape violence. By the time a person makes the decision to immigrate, they have already accumulated multiple traumas and more may await upon their arrival at their destination.

In my role as a therapist, I have worked with countless newcomers and their families – mostly from the Latine/x community. These clients face complex barriers as they learn to navigate new customs and cultural expectations. Because of their general lack of financial and/or cultural capital, these clients often turn to the only resources they have: their children.

At a time when they may still be developing their own social relations and skills, children of immigrants must contend with the added weight of their parents’ needs. And while it may seem like a point of pride for a child to “grow up fast,” this process of taking on family obligations and responsibilities has consequences for the mental health of these children – consequences that often persist into adulthood. It is a process that therapists refer to as parentification.

Among my clients, parentification often presents as the result of children needing to function as cultural and language brokers. A common example of this is the parent-teacher conference, where the child must act as an interpreter for their parents. In this context, the child must overfunction in order to ensure the parents receive the information required to meet the child’s needs. In more complex situations, such as medical appointments, the well-being of the parents becomes the child’s responsibility. And because the parent may choose to withhold sensitive information from the child, this may further impede access to appropriate care.

It may seem as if parentification is an undue burden placed on children by their neglectful parents, but I would like to challenge that notion here. As the daughter of immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico, I know that my parentification occurred unwittingly and as the unfortunate result of systemic failures that only further perpetuate the traumas of the immigrant experience.

I have vivid memories of my own parent-teacher conferences, particularly one in middle school. As was expected by both my teacher and my parents, I undertook the role of interpreter and acted as a cultural bridge. What was already a stressful situation was then compounded by the thoughtlessness of my teacher who commented, “I was so surprised by Lisette because she did not look very smart.” My parents, of course, did not understand, but it was my job to find a way to translate the insult and somehow explain what they needed to do with that information.

Traumas such as the one I describe above may also stem from bicultural straddling, a concept that describes existing in two cultures but not experiencing a sense of belonging in either. “Ni de aquí ni de allá” (Neither from here nor there) is one way this is often talked about among children of Spanish-speaking immigrants. These children may possess linguistic and/or cultural knowledge of their family’s home country, but they often feel like outsiders when they visit – and that feeling persists when they return “home.”

Are you the child of immigrants? If so, consider how this might present in your body.

Do you experience a sense of:
Questioning your identity and choices

This is just a snapshot of what I see in my work as a therapist. If you can resonate with any of what I’ve described above, consider talking to someone about it – a therapist, a close friend, or a mentor. In learning to name your feelings, it can help you process them. For example, with the knowledge I have now, I can look back at my experience with my middle school teacher and name what I was experiencing: a microaggression. I may not be able to go back in time and change what happened, but armed with that information, I can begin to understand my own feelings of shame and guilt and the fact that I did nothing wrong in that encounter. As a matter of fact, it was never my responsibility to take on those feelings in the first place.

I strongly urge you to consider the positive skills and strengths you may have developed through your experience. Children of immigrants often excel at being resourceful, self-reliant, self-aware, and persistent. So go ahead and claim those qualities for yourself. You’ve earned them.

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